Back-to-back accidents and an above-ground radiation release have closed the US government’s only deep underground nuclear waste dump indefinitely, raising questions about a cornerstone of the Department of Energy’s $5-billion-a-year program for cleaning up waste scattered across the country from decades of nuclear bomb making.
On Febuary 5, the mine was shut and six workers sent to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation after a truck hauling salt caught fire. Nine days later, a radiation alert activated in the area where newly arrived waste was being stored. Preliminary tests show 13 workers suffered some radiation exposure, and monitors have since detected elevated levels of plutonium and americium in the air. Ground and water samples are being analyzed.
Officials said they’re confident the incidents are unrelated.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the nation’s only deep underground geological repository for anything contaminated by more than the lowest levels of radiation. And opponents will certainly use the case to fight against any expansion of WIPP’s mission, which is to take only transuranic waste from federal nuclear sites.
The closure highlights a lack of alternatives for disposing of tainted materials like tools, gloves, glasses and protective suits from national labs in Idaho, Illinois, South Carolina and New Mexico.
With operations at the plant on hold, so are all shipments, including the last of nearly 4,000 barrels of toxic waste that Los Alamos National Laboratories has been ordered to remove from its campus by the end of June. That waste is now stored outside with little protection.
Also on hold are tests to see if the dump can expand its mission to take more than so-called lower level transuranic waste from the nation’s research facilities, including hopes by DOE that it can ship hotter, liquid waste from leaking tanks at Washington state’s Hanford nuclear waste site.
New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the state will be looking closely at what caused the leak that exposed the workers before deciding whether to back plans to allow the repository to bring in waste from new sources.
“Events like this should never occur,” he said at a news conference last week where officials confirmed the leak.
Government officials, politicians, the contractors that run the mine and local officials all say it is too soon to speculate on what the short- or long-term impacts of the of the shutdown might be, or where else the toxic waste would go. And they emphasize that all the safety systems designed to react to worst-case scenarios worked.
“A lot of people are just jumping up and down and wanting us to shut down,” said Farok Sharif, president of the Nuclear Waste Partnership that runs WIPP. “But that’s not the case here.”
Still, no one yet knows what caused the first-known radiation release from the massive rooms that have been dug out of the ancient Permian Sea bed. Eventually, they will be covered in concrete, with the intent of safely sealing the casks of mostly solid waste 2,150 feet (655 meters) underground and preventing any future release into the environment.
But watchdog Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center says WIPP has now failed in its long-stated mission “to start clean, stay clean.”
While officials emphasize that the levels detected off-site are no more harmful than a dental X-ray, they have not been able to go underground, and have not directly answered questions about how contaminated the tunnels might be.
“There’s a whole lot of stuff that we don’t know,” said Hancock. “A lot more sampling that needs to be done. Then there is going to have to be public discussion what needs to be done.” – Sapa-AP